MURDER BY INSANITY – OR THE SUPERNATURAL?
On April 11, 1907, after being out for 24 hours, the jury in the Harry Thaw murder case announced that they had been unable to reach a verdict in what had become known as the “crime of the century.” Thaw was charged with the murder of renowned architect Stanford White. While there would be many other spectacular celebrity murders to follow in the twentieth century, few would boast participants as famous -- or events as strange -- as those in the case of Harry K. Thaw.
Wealthy Killer Harry Thaw
Harry Thaw was the son of an ambitious Pittsburgh family and heir to a vast fortune that had been earned by cornering the coke market, a product necessary to make steel. The Thaw family connections and wealth had managed to allow the family into the upper crust of New York society. Though well-educated, Harry Thaw was also considered to be rather odd, even by his own family. His school escapades and wild behavior caused his father to limit his allowance to just $2,000 per year. His doting mother supplemented this income with an additional $80,000 and yet Thaw bemoaned the poor state of his finances. He didn’t believe that what he considered this paltry amount could possibly support his standard of living.
One of Thaw’s greatest expenses was the apartment that he maintained at a high-priced New York brothel. Here, he would entice young girls with offers of helping them to star in plays and in Broadway shows. Once he had them in his clutches, as the house madam, Susan Merrill, later testified, he would rape the girls and often beat them badly for his own sexual pleasure. Merrill later stated, “I could hear the screams coming from his apartment and once I could stand it no longer. I rushed into his rooms. He had tied the girl to the bed, naked, and was whipping her. She was covered with welts.”
Evelyn Nesbit. She was so beautiful that she inspired Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl” and was called “the loveliest looking girl who ever breathed” by author Irvin S. Cobb
Despite Thaw’s peculiarities, it is unlikely that he would have come to public attention if he had not become involved with a young woman named Evelyn Nesbit. She had come to New York at the age of 16 and when Thaw met her, she was becoming known as an actress and a model. As a member of the chorus of the hit show Floradora, she was one of the beauties asked the musical question, “Tell me, pretty maiden, are there any more at home like you?” She also posed for a Charles Dana Gibson drawing called "The Eternal Question" and was described by some as the “loveliest looking girl who ever breathed.” Writer Irvin S. Cobb described Nesbit in print as having “the slim, quick grace of a fawn, a head that sat on her flawless throat as a lily on its stem, eyes that were the color of blue-brown pansies and the size of half-dollars, and a mouth made of rumpled rose petals.” She looked innocent but her gentle beauty hid a more sultry side: soon after arriving in New York, she had become the mistress of millionaire architect Stanford White.
The red-haired, hulking White was considered the most distinguished architect of his day. He had designed more than 50 of New York’s most admired buildings, including Madison Square Garden and the Washington Square Arch. He was credited with being the single greatest influence in beautifying the rather drab, brownstone New York City of the Nineteenth Century. Madison Square Garden itself, with its amphitheater for horse shows and prize fights, and its theater, roof garden, restaurant, and arcade of fashionable shops, was regarded by most as his greatest accomplishment.
Famed architect Stanford White
But there was another side to the acclaimed architect. He enjoyed mixing in theatrical and Bohemian circles, was an avid party-goer, and, although married, loved pretty girls. After meeting young Evelyn Nesbit, he seduced the teenager and gave her large amounts of money, expensive clothing and jewelry. Evelyn remained with White until she was 19 and at that point she left him and became involved with Harry Thaw. He married her on April 4, 1905 when she was 20. In the interval, he had twice lived with her as man and wife on trips to Europe and caused a major New York scandal when the two of them were evicted from a hotel where they were blatantly co-habiting.
Despite ensnaring the girl of his dreams, Harry Thaw was slowly going insane. During the first 14 months of their marriage, Thaw persecuted Evelyn about her former relationship with White. He refused to allow her to use White’s name and only permitted her to refer to him as “the Beast” or “the Bastard.” Once, while crossing the Atlantic on a vacation to Europe, Thaw tied Evelyn to a bed in their stateroom. He beat her with a belt for hours and made her confess every sexual act in which she had engaged with Stanford White. To stop the whipping, she later confessed that she made things up just to appease her brutal husband, claiming that White raped her and forced her to pose naked with other women.
Evelyn’s tales only incensed Thaw even further and he vowed revenge. He would sometimes carry a revolver around the house and would mumble to himself about saving other young girls from sharing Evelyn’s fate.
Thaw’s revenge came on the night of June 25, 1906. He and Evelyn, accompanied by two friends, attended the opening of a play called Mam’zelle Champagne at the dining theater on the roof of Madison Square Garden. The theater was a frequent gathering place for New York society and thousands of the city’s wealthiest people were all in attendance. For the occasion, Evelyn donned a daring white satin gown and looked spectacular under the stage lights. Soon after taking their seats, she and Thaw noticed Stanford White being ushered to a table in the privileged section near the footlights.
The play turned out to be a dull one and in time, the Thaws rose to leave. As Harry stepped out into the aisle, he looked down the length of it and saw White framed dramatically at the end. While the girls in the chorus sang a production number, Thaw walked down the aisle and stopped next to White, who pretended not to see him. He then calmly reached into his coat, withdrew a revolver and fired three shots into the architect’s head. Two of those bullets slammed into White’s brain and he died immediately. His heavy frame crashed forward on the table and then rolled over onto the floor. Thaw then changed his grip on the pistol, holding it by the muzzle so that it was plain that he didn’t intend to shoot anyone else. He was arrested and taken to Center Street Station. Thaw was charged with murder and placed in the Tombs to await trial.
While he was in jail, Thaw had all of his meals catered from Delmonico’s, one of New York’s finest restaurants. He also had whiskey smuggled to him and was allowed to continue playing the stock market, meeting with his broker in jail at all hours of the day and night.
After he was arraigned for murder, Thaw’s mother, who was in England at the time visiting her daughter, the Countess of Yarmouth, announced that she was returning to the United States to stand by her son. She said, “I am prepared to pay a million dollars to save his life.” She hired the famous trial lawyer Delphin Delmas from California to defend her son. He would be opposed by the equally famous district attorney, William Travers Jerome, who upon hearing that the Thaw fortune was at stake for Harry’s defense stated, “With all of his millions, Thaw is a fiend! No matter how rich a man is, he cannot get away with murder!”
Thaw’s trial did not begin until January 21, 1907. In the seven months that preceded it, William Stanford White underwent a character assassination in the newspapers that was unprecedented for an American of his distinction and society connections. There were so many tales of his amorous activities that, for even half of them to be true, he would have had to have slept with the majority of the young women and girls in New York. The most famous stories involved White’s legendary red velvet swing, which was secreted in one of the many love nests that he kept throughout the city. In this heavily curtained pleasure palace on the West Side, he was alleged to keep the velvet swing hanging from the ceiling. In this swing, he would place his young women, dressed like little girls, and would wildly push them back and forth. It was said that he would peer lasciviously up their billowing skirts in prelude to more adult passions.
The campaign of slander and vilification against White was masterminded by Ben Atwell, a press agent hired by Thaw’s mother. She also financially backed a play based loosely on the events that occurred – or at least in the way that the yellow press had painted them. The play featured three characters named Harold Daw, Emeline Hudspeth Daw, and Stanford Black. In this first scene, the Black character brutally assaulted a blind man asking for news of his beautiful young daughter. The play ended with Daw shooting Black during a performance in a roof garden theater, then declaring from his cell at the Tombs, “No jury on earth will send me to the chair, no matter what I have done or what I have been, for killing the man who defamed my wife. That is the unwritten law made by men themselves, and upon its virtue, I will stake my life.”
The play was not exactly subtle but it was popular. It likely had an effect on the legal proceedings that followed, for while the case certainly seemed open and shut, the trial lasted for more than four months. From the start, Thaw’s attorney would claim his client to be innocent and that a form of insanity had made him want to kill White. And while Thaw may have been insane, he would state that his urge to kill had come from a mysterious force outside his body. Namely, that he was possessed by the spirits of the dead!
The claim was supported by a doctor of medicine and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science named Dr. Carl Wickland. The Chicago doctor’s wife was a proponent of Spiritualism and a professed medium. Three weeks after Thaw’s arrest, Mrs. Wickland insisted that a spirit voice came through her during a séance and confessed that it had forced Thaw to kill Stanford White. The spirit told the group gathered in the séance room, “I killed Stanford White. He deserved death. He had trifled too long with our daughters.”
According to Mrs. Wickland, the ghost identified himself as a man named Johnson. He had been from a lower social scale when he was among the living and denounced the wealthy, saying that the rich womanizers like Stanford White had no right to live, “stealing our children from us and putting fine clothes on them.” The spirit’s daughter was allegedly a young girl named Susie, a 15-year-old model, who had been the highlight of a Bohemian party that White attended. She had risen out of a giant pie and exhibited her charms, which were scarcely hidden behind a wisp of chiffon. White was so taken with her that he plied her with champagne and, when she was intoxicated, took her to one of his apartments and seduced her. Later, he turned her out, penniless, and she died at the age of 23 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
In addition to Johnson’s angry spirit, another entity also came through during the séance. He identified himself as Harry Thaw’s deceased father. He defended his son and claimed that the young man had been sensitive to spirit influence throughout his life. The spirit added that he never understood Harry’s actions when he was alive but in death, realized that his son’s depraved activities were the result of having “been a tool in the hands of earthbound spirits, evil spirits that ordered death.” The ghost went on to add explicitly that Harry Thaw was “obsessed by revengeful spirits when he killed Stanford White.”
It was certainly a novel defense and one that played well with the jury. Delphin Delmas and the other lawyers representing Thaw used it to muddy the waters while they assassinated the character of Stanford White. It only served to help the case that prosecuting attorney William Travers Jerome was curiously inept during this peak moment in his career. He lost his temper several times in court while his opponent stayed calm and clever. Delmas brought Evelyn into court looking very demure and innocent in sailor blouses and Buster Brown collars. A crowd of over 10,000 milled around outside, hanging on news that filtered from the building. Inside of the courtroom, spectators soaked up the seamy details of Evelyn’s seduction and her descriptions of sex with Stanford White – some of which was allegedly so risqué that the “delicate” young woman would only whisper it into the ear of the judge.
Evelyn first met White in 1901, when she was just 16 years old. A girlfriend took her to lunch at the architect’s apartment on West 24th Street. A second man was there but left after the meal. White then took the girls upstairs to a room where the red velvet swing hung from the ceiling. He let the girls take turns on it as he pushed them. Evelyn recalled, “Right up to the ceiling. They had a big Japanese umbrella on the ceiling, so when we swung up very high our feet passed through it.”
White did not lose touch with Evelyn, who he considered his new discovery. He met her mother by arrangement and suggested that Evelyn should have some dental treatment. He sent her a hat, a feather boa and a long, red cape. Throughout, he behaved with the utmost correctness. Evelyn testified, “At supper, he wouldn’t let me have but one glass of champagne, and he said I mustn’t stay up late. He took me home himself to the Arlington Hotel, where we were staying, and knocked on my mother’s door.”
Then came the day when Evelyn’s mother left town to visit friends in Pittsburgh, dismayed at leaving her daughter alone in New York. When he heard of this, White immediately offered his services, promising to take good care of the girl if she was left in his care. He made Evelyn promise, in front of her mother, not to go out with anyone but him while he mother was away. White paid for her mother’s trip to Pittsburgh and, the second night after her departure, sent a note to the theater where Evelyn was appearing in Floradora and asked her to a party at his apartment. When she arrived, there was no one else there and White lamely explained that no one else was able to come. He suggested that they have something to eat, and afterwards, White offered to show her the rooms that she had not seen during her previous visit. He took her up some backstairs to a bedroom and poured her a glass of champagne. Evelyn later said her head began to pound, the room started spinning and she passed out.
When she revived, Evelyn was in the bed. All of her clothing was gone and White was naked and lying beside her. There were mirrors all around the bed. Evelyn remembered, “I started to scream and Mr. White quieted me. I don’t remember how I got my clothes on or how I went home, but he took me home. Then he went away and left me and I sat up all night.” Evelyn implied that the two of them engaged in sex that night but testimony of it was not admitted into the trial.
White called on her the next day and found her sitting in a chair, staring out the windows. She was obviously upset but White reassured her. He told her, “Everyone does those things.” She asked if the various people that she had met at parties with White also made love and White convinced her that they did, but it was always kept secret. She was told that it was important that they not be found out and White made her promise not to say a word about it to her mother.
Harry Thaw was also smeared during all of the mudslinging that took place during the trail, although his attorney managed to make his bizarre sexual proclivities a further symptom of his madness, whether it was inspired by the spirits or simply garden-variety insanity. Reporters managed to dig up stories of Thaw beating and whipping young women, including a legal suit brought against him by Ethel Thomas in 1902. He had purchased a dog whip one day in a store and when she asked him what it was for, he told her that he intended to use it on her. She said, “I thought he was joking, but no sooner were we in his apartment and the door locked than his demeanor changed. A wild expression came into his eyes, and he seized me and with his whip beat me until my clothes hung in tatters.”
Evelyn has also suffered from the same sort of treatment from Thaw. The trouble began when they were staying at a castle that Thaw had rented in Austria. One morning, she had come to breakfast wearing only her bathrobe. After the meal had finished, Thaw accompanied her to the bedroom, where he ripped the bathrobe from her body, leaving her completely naked, save for her slippers. She testified, “His eyes were glaring and he had in his hands a cowhide whip. He seized hold of me and threw me on the bed. I was powerless and attempted to scream, but he placed his fingers in my mouth and tried to choke me. He then, without any provocation, and without the slightest reason, began to inflict on me several severe and violent blows with the cowhide whip. So brutally did he assault me that my skin was cut and bruised. I besought him to desist, but he refused. I was so exhausted that I shouted and cried. He stopped every minute or so to rest, and then renewed his attacks upon me, which he continued for about seven minutes. He acted like a demented man. I was absolutely in fear for my life… It was nearly three weeks before I was sufficiently recovered to be able to get out of my bed and walk.”
Why, many people wondered, had she married a man who treated her so badly? Evelyn’s motives seemed clear: the desire for wealth and position. Thaw was apparently “persuaded” to marry Evelyn at her family’s insistence. The alternative was a charge of corrupting a minor, since Thaw, like White, had gotten involved with the young woman when she was underage.
The trial ended on April 11, 1907, but after being out for more than 24 hours, the jury announced that they had been unable to reach a verdict. On the final ballot, it was later learned, seven had voted Thaw guilty of first-degree murder, and five had voted him not guilty by reason of insanity. Thaw was kept in custody until his second trail started in early January 1908. This time, his “ordeal” was shorter and on February 1, the second jury came to the conclusion that something had temporarily taken over control of Harry Thaw at the time of the murder. They returned a verdict of “not guilty, on the grounds of insanity at the time of the commission of the act.” Thaw had been saved from the electric chair, but he certainly wasn’t free. He was imprisoned for life at the New York State Asylum for the Criminally Insane at Mattewan, New York.
Attempts by his attorneys (and by his mother, who spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to get him declared sane) were protracted and unsuccessful. On the morning of August 17, 1913, Thaw escaped from the asylum. With the aid of a limousine that was waiting outside the gates, he fled and sought refuge in Canada. The next month, under pressure from the U.S. government, the Canadian Minister of Justice agreed to return him to the United States. He was jailed in Concord, New Hampshire, and fought a long legal battle against returning to New York. He was not sent back, to stand trial again, until December 1914.
Meanwhile, Evelyn went on to become a vaudeville attraction. Her beauty wasted away before cheap audiences, but not before she became pregnant with a son that she stubbornly insisted was Harry Thaw’s. When reporters pointed out that Thaw had been inside a mental institution for the past seven years, Evelyn swore that Harry had bribed a guard at the hospital and she had been allowed to spend the night with him. The baby, for whom she filed for huge support payments, was a result of that one evening.
In July 1915, a New York court pronounced Thaw sane and cleared him of all charges. Shortly after his release from jail, he publicly denounced Evelyn and denied that he had anything to do with fathering her child. Soon after, he divorced her and went on an outrageous spending spree, hoping to burn through whatever inheritance he could.
Unfortunately for Thaw, he was jailed again in 1916. He was arrested for horsewhipping a teenager named Frederick Gump and while Thaw tried to buy off the boy’s family with over a half million dollars, he was still sent back to the mental hospital. He was kept there under tight security until his release in 1922.
After that, Thaw continued his interrupted career of high living until his death in 1947. He traveled the world, sporting attractive young girls on his arms and billed himself to reporters as a theatrical and movie producer. Needless to say, Thaw never moved in entertainment circles and most laughed off his pretensions to a vivid imagination. Or perhaps it was something else. On certain occasions, Thaw’s playful gaze would become a wild stare and his mouth would open to emit strange words that seemed to pass incoherently from his lips. Insanity – or influences from beyond this world?